Re: Curious consultation

Sir - As a retired environmental scientist, I am in broad agreement with Alice Thomson's article (comment, Jun 20). It is now months since the Government announced that it would consult the public before deciding whether to grow commercially GM foods, but we have yet to learn how consultation is to be undertaken.

Miss Thomson points out that the Government has not advertised it, and most of the people I have spoken to are not even aware that a consultation exercise has been proposed.

My experience of advising on environmental problems in many Third-World countries (I was a consultant to the World Health Organisation on water pollution) makes me sceptical of the Prime Minister's claim that GM food is the answer to starvation. It is well known that the Irish potato famine of the 19th century would probably not have been so disastrous if a range of potato varieties had been cultivated instead of a monoculture. Many varieties of maize are grown in Africa and India, but if GM maize is planted, the advantages associated with biodiversity will be lost.

Sadly, it is increasingly evident that the precautionary principle, adopted by Britain on the recommendation of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, is being thrown overboard in this field of research. It is particularly telling that the National Academy of Sciences, in America, has stated that the tests on GM foods carried out for the American regulatory mechanism "fall far short of what should be done". Also, the British Medical Association, in a submission to the Scottish Parliament, demanded a moratorium on commercial planting of GM crops because "insufficient care is being taken to protect public health and there has been a lack of public consultation about crop trials despite the steady increase in the number of them".

Michael Meacher's removal confirms my view that the Government is bowing to pressure from the Bush administration for Europe to accept imports of genetically modified organisms and, despite a stated wish for the public to have "freedom of choice", not even to let people know which foods have been genetically modified.

From: Prof Desmond Hammerton, Callander, Perthshire

Making the rich wealthy and the poor destitute

27 June 2003

SIR - Professor Pridham (letter, June 25) seems to forget that a high percentage of the British public are enthusiastic gardeners and horticulturists and will not be convinced by his GM arguments.

There is not a world food shortage, but many are starving because of poverty, civil war and drought-induced crop failures. GM will not resolve those issues and may in fact make them far worse.

When it comes to feeding the world's poorest, pulses, not high-protein potatoes, are surely the solution. Over the centuries, hundreds of high-yield pulses have been developed for varying climates by conventional hybridisation.

With simple irrigation systems, even in poor soil, using seed saved from earlier crops, substantial subsistence crops can be obtained for zero capital outlay. The cross-fertilisation from neighbouring GM crop trials in parts of India has already led to cases of seed sterility and crop failure. The introduction of GM into such countries will make the rich wealthier and the poor destitute.

Monoculture was a key factor in the Irish potato famine and lies behind the present banana scare, so clearly it is a road to be avoided at all costs.

In a high-labour-cost country such as America, a herbicide-resistant soya bean may be commercially viable, maintaining crop yields with less labour. In poor countries, replacing direct labour with chemicals has obvious consequences. The environmental effect of the herbicides and insecticides used must also be evaluated and the long-term effects of upsetting the balance of nature considered.

Most field trials have revealed complications in these areas, so do we need GM crops? The rewards for any company that controls the supply of seeds, herbicides and insecticides for staple crops worldwide are immense; and that is the driving force for GM.

From: Brian Shaw, Halifax